Focus: Working with the men on the chain gang

OK, so there are no chains, and British offenders don't wear stripes like these Americans. But they may soon be put in bright uniforms - and, as Katy Guest found out when she joined a gang, they really don't like it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

People who do wrong should be made to put it right. Preferably in bright orange uniforms so we can all see them doing so.

People who do wrong should be made to put it right. Preferably in bright orange uniforms so we can all see them doing so.

That is the latest idea floated by the Home Office as a way of helping Tony Blair encourage us all to show each other a bit more respect.

Asked whether offenders would soon be put to work on our streets in highly-visible outfits, like those worn by American chain gangs, Charles Clarke said "yes": the idea is "not only a goer, it is happening now".

He had seen, with his own eyes, a project in south London where participants "were badged, in the sense that they were wearing uniform", he said on Tuesday.

Except he was wrong. The Home Office has now told the Independent on Sunday that Mr Clarke made a mistake: the offenders were wearing painting overalls, not uniforms.

Whoops. Perhaps Mr Clarke should come with us to an overgrown alleyway in Enfield, north London, where a gang of offenders has assembled in fluorescent jackets. The eye-wateringly bright yellow jerkins are to stop them getting run over by their lorry, but they also mean everyone can see these eight men work.

This is how Mr Clarke wants community justice to work. The question is, will it work at all?

Ali, a burly 25-year-old, lifts an enormous fridge freezer and carries it to a waiting van. Nearby Eric, 21, wields a sharp metal rake.

Supervised by Podraic, who is pushing a wheelbarrow, they are part of a new community service venture in Enfield which enables locals to tell offenders exactly where to go. This time the residents have told them, via a special email address advertised on leaflets, to clear this alley of rubbish.

"Hopefully, if they clear it up it will put off the people who use this place as a dump," says Ernie, a local. He is a great fan of the scheme, which is called Community Payback. "I've lived here for 52 years. We get fly-tipped a lot, and it snowballs," says Ernie, 63.

"As soon as an area gets run down, you get drunks and drug addicts, petty crime. It needs cleaning up, so I contacted the council and they organise this. My council knows me by name."

Payback is a pilot to be rolled out across London within six months. Of the 50 offenders who have completed it since July, only one has re-offended - and locals are full of praise. The group was asked to clear an unusable children's playground. "Within a day it was transformed," says Mike Wells of the National Probation Service. "Children were playing again and residents came out to say how pleased they were."

For such schemes to work, the participants have to be seen. But humiliating them with uniforms is the last way to increase respect in society, says Bryan Gibson, the author of The A-Z of Criminal Justice.

"It brings about the wrong mindset, like when we used to put people in the pillory," he says. "It leads people to disrespect offenders.

"You certainly won't make offenders respect victims, or victims respect offenders, by parading them as some sort of freak show."

Harry Fletcher, from the National Association of Probation Officers, goes further. Degrading offenders on community service makes them too embarrassed to turn up at all, he says, and "a third of people breaching an order currently end up going to prison".

In America, half of all prison admissions are for breaches of parole or probation. Chain gangs have been out of fashion there since the 1950s, but lately the idea of highly-visible working parties has been taken up again with enthusiasm.

There is, however, a darker side to "respect", a word that can mean something violent on the street.

"In April, a 21-year-old on a community service site in Liverpool was shot in the leg by a rival gang," says Fletcher. "People involved in these projects say that if you make their activities more obvious, things like this will happen more often."

Back in Enfield, the young men clearing the alleyway are clear about the lack of respect uniforms would signify. "It would be embarrassing but I suppose it is better than going to prison. You have to wear uniform in prison, too," says Eric, who is about to celebrate his last day of community service. "At least we're doing a good job. Of course I'm glad I'm helping people."

These men do not consider themselves yobs. When he is not lifting fridges, Eric is a painter and decorator, and has recently put his skills to use working in a block of flats in Tower Hamlets.

He and the other offenders are also learning skills like carpentry and painting through the project - the one way most likely to prevent them re- offending, says Harry Fletcher.

"These aren't sex offenders," he says. "Of 52,209 community punishment orders, no less than 23,528 have committed a summary offence heard in a magistrates' court. That's usually something like a motoring offence."

Ali moved to Britain from Turkey four years ago, and was recently convicted of driving without insurance or road tax. "I started two weeks ago. I got 200 hours and I'm working six, seven or eight hours a week," he says. "I'm also learning English at college. Yes, I'm looking forward to it ending."

Podraic, who is supervising the group as they gradually reveal the grass and trees beneath Enfield's unofficial dumping ground, thinks uniforms will not work. "I'd say it is humiliating," he says. "Getting them to wear the tabards today is about as far as they would go.

"In any case, the community around here knows what they're doing. People can see that it is really working. And they're actually repaying something, rather than just sitting around in a cell."